Friday, April 10, 2009

ByattBlogging 8: The Matisse Stories

The Matisse Stories are three short pieces, each of which is based on and refers to a different painting by Matisse. “Medusa’s Ankles” uses Le Nu Rose, “Art Work” uses Le Silence habité des Maisons, and “The Chinese Lobster” uses La Porte Noire. It would seem immediately obvious that Byatt’s concern with representation in art will be a major theme in these stories. But why Matisse? This is far from the first time Byatt has used the art of painting, or indeed a specific artist, as a motif; what does Matisse give her that is different than Van Gogh?

The answer seems to come in the last story of the volume, “The Chinese Lobster”, as two professors discuss Matisse and other matters over a meal in a Chinese restaurant. One of them shares a recollection of visiting the aging painter, at that time living in dimness to avoid going blind; “black is the colour of light,” Matisse allegedly said, to which anecdote the other professor observes that Matisse also said “I believe in God when I work.” Which seems to track with the theme of the presence or absence of divinity, explored in Angels & Insects and Possession. Divinity, here, is rediscovered, associated with creativity.

But also Matisse is described as the painter of “silent bliss”, of, in his words, “luxe, calme et volupté.” This does not sound terribly dramatic, yet nevertheless seems key to the stories. Each of the three tales in this collection can be seen as depicting a tension between that calmness, that silent bliss, and acts of rage or violence which would disrupt it. Another way to put it is that each of the stories, in their own way, depicts the way in which calmness can, unexpectedly, overwhelm rage or chaos; these are stories about the often-unnoticed and sometimes-equivocal triumphs of silent bliss.

Consider the first story, “Medusa’s Ankles”. The story is about Susannah, an aging scholar, a linguist and translator, and her relationship with her hairdresser; a non-sexual relationship, a relationship in his professional capacity alone. Now, Byatt knows that Freud considered the Medusa as a symbol of male fears of castration and of women, and she knows that Sartre considered it a symbol of the fear of being watched. So: the Medusa with snakes for hair becomes the coiling locks the hairdresser works with; the fear of being watched is generally at work in the way in which women have their hair styled to present themselves to the world (especially Susannah, who must appear on TV); the fear of women appears, perhaps, from the way in which the hairdresser, Lucian, keeps himself distanced from the women in his life — not only his clients, but also his wife, whom he leaves for a younger woman, and his daughter, whose age he can hardly remember. More specifically, Lucian cuts himself, his finger, with his own scissor in front of Susannah — “He waved the bloody member before her nose”, we’re told — as a way of justifying a break from working on her hair (which ends up going long, and so setting the stage for the climax of the story).

But echoes of profundity are everywhere in the story. Lucian plans to go on holiday with his girlfriend to the Greek islands, underlining not only the Medusa image but also perhaps a reference he makes to the religion of Mithra, a temple uncovered in London — Lucian is flighty, and hops from subject to subject knowing little about any of them. For Susannah, though, her surroundings are as it were pregnant with meaning. Hair salons, for example; when she was young, the old dome-like hairdryers “had seemed like some kind of electrically shocking initiation into womanhood.” Even today, without those old dryers, “on either side of her mysteries were being enacted”, if only the craft mysteries of hairstyling. Mysteries, blood, initiation; it’s a lot of meaning to extract from a hair salon.

And Matisse? Le Nu Rose hangs in Lucian’s shop; it’s what drew Susannah. Lucian picked it out because it fit the colour scheme of the shop. Later, he remodels, changing the atmosphere, tinting the story emotionally, moving Susannah in an uncomfortable direction. But the Matisse: Lucian asks Susannah about it during a chat about his “inner life” and the Mithraic Temple (he characteristically flits from subject to subject); so the art is related to the life of the spirit. 

There’s another resonance, though. We’re told in the first paragraph of the story Susannah is drawn by the painting’s unconventional depiction of a woman: large haunches, steady stare, mature — it’s not one of the pictures of young girls usually on display in a hair salon. And aging is a major theme in the story. Susannah starts having her hair done by Lucian, after decades without visiting a stylist, because she’s aware of her own aging, her own disintegration. Lucian leaves her wife because she is aging; her ankles have gotten fat (which, incidentally, although it provides the title of the story, is something not a part of my experience; I’ve heard women fret about their ankles, but I’ve never in my life heard a man evaluate a woman’s ankles except as part of an overall assessment of a pair of legs. Other people tell me it happens. At any rate, here it is in the story, and it’s hardly a deal-breaker). The climactic moment of the story follows Susannah’s realisation that she is, as she says, a middle-aged lady with a hair-do.

And that climax, without going into detail, is an explosion of rage — gendered rage, female rage. It follows a vision of Susannah’s mother, imagined in a mirror like a Japanese demon. And this rage is, we are told, as we might expect, petrifying. Manifestations of the medusa usually are. And yet ... following the rage, there is a calmness. Silent bliss. Susannah’s husband, all unaware, puts the final perfect cap on the events of the story. Rage can be potent, perhaps can even be transformative; but it is best when it passes, when it brings about a calmness that follows.

The second story of the collection, “Art Work”, cleverly balances the two elements of its title. The lead character, Debbie Denison, is a design writer who supports her husband, a struggling artist named Robin, and their two kids. She employs a cleaning-woman, Mrs. Brown, who draws the ire of the tetchy Robin by moving things in his studio; objects he keeps for their colour, mostly, but sometimes elements of the still-life portraits he obsessively produces. Occasionally Robin lectures Mrs. Brown about the importance of these items, why they matter, the nature of colour. Debbie lets Mrs. Brown take home bits of cloth and old clothes the family can’t use anymore. And then, after Robin fails to get a gallery show, Sheba Brown (for such, to Debbie’s surprise, is Mrs. Brown’s first name) succeeds — using cast-off clothes and the colour sense Robin has perhaps helped teach her to create an art of collage and unexpected invention.

So: Robin works at art, and fails; though there’s more than a hint that the events of the story will push his art into a new direction. Sheba Brown is a worker who creates art out of what she gets from her work. Debbie tries to balance her work with her feel for art, and again the events of the story push her into a new direction.

What the experience of Sheba Brown’s art does is effectively recontextualise the old lives of the Dennisons; what was old is made new. The old relations of things change. Debbie, however belatedly, comes to understand that her cleaning lady is a person of her own, with a life and talent of her own, and a perhaps-regal first name; with a culture to go along with her exotic skin colour. Robin, who we are explicitly told deflected his resentment of his wife onto his cleaning lady, finds a new, “slightly savage” energy in his painting; perhaps his emotions have found their proper release. Perhaps not; he still roars at the new cleaning lady.

Robin Dennison is the story’s most troubled presence. He’s immature in many ways; one paragraph uses the words “boy”, “insubstantial”, “adolescent”, and “colt” to describe him. But he appreciates Matisse, and his courting of Debbi was marked by long discussions of how “the pure sensuousness of Luxe, calme et volupté could be a religious experience of the nature of things.” It is his impromptu lecture on colour which helps Sheba Brown create her own art; sadly, he himself is disproportionately given to “seeing red”. 

The colour discussion seems to echo the action of Matisse’s Le Silence habité des Maisons, which is the painting that inspired the story. It’s described in detail at the beginning of the story; ironically, it is a reproduction that is described, a black-and-white copy. From there, the story moves to describe the “inhabited silence” of the Dennison home — a silence inhabited but, at that moment, voiceless. Byatt quotes a commentator on the painting as claiming that “At last Matisse is wholly at ease with the fierce impulse”, as Robin is not; the story is, in a way, a story about his fierce impulse impeding his ability to find luxe, calme et volupté.

Which phrase comes up a lot in the next tale. “The Chinese Lobster” is in many ways a simple story. Dr. Gerda Himmelblau, director of a Women’s Studies program, meets with her colleague Peregrine Diss over a sexual harassment complaint filed against him by a student working on her art history thesis. The thesis, as it turns out, takes the form of reproductions of Matisse’s paintings smeared with bodily waste and garbage. This outraged Diss to the extent that he said and did certain things which he admits were excessive, though not of the order that the student alleges. Himmelblau immediately believes him, and the two academics go on to find deeper and deeper levels of common experience.

The conversation between Himmelblau and Diss is essentially the entire story; this is a story about the meeting of their minds. It feels curiously slight, though, as there hardly seems to be much of an obstacle to their communication. They deal with each other easily from the start, and find successively more profound levels on which to communicate as the story goes; that’s nice, but not compelling. The disturbed student, Peggi Nollett, is clearly a much more difficult person to reach and probably to deal with; but there doesn’t seem to be much of an attempt, on the part of either professor or of the author, to deal with her as an individual. She’s there just to give the scholars a reason to talk to each other.

“She can’t see, can’t you see?” asks Diss, somewhat repetitively, summing up Nollett’s failure as an artist. For Byatt, that inability to see the world as it is makes for false art; Nollett’s work is the equivalent of putting a moustache on the Mona Lisa. Her obsession with victim-consciousness produces facile, unconvincing travesties of art. All this may be very accurate, but it seems a very simple idea for a character, and it makes for a very facile story — one wishes, almost, that Nollett had been allowed by her creator to actually show some potential, demonstrate some artistic power.

Frankly, it’s very easy for the reader to feel sympathy for Nollett as the story unfolds. Himmelblau presents Diss with Nollett’s account of events, which include statements that Diss made sexual advances toward her; Diss denies the account; Himmelblau believes him. She then goes on to discuss how troubled a person Nollett is, as demonstrated by her anorexia and two failed suicide attempts. Let me repeat that: the director of a Women’s Studies program discusses a student’s mental health issues and suicide attempts with the man that student has accused of sexual harassment. I cannot think of a single way that action could be justified. But neither can I find a hint in the story that Himmelblau’s action should be viewed ironically, or that she’s been taken in by Diss.

The two of them discuss Nollett at arm’s length, as a specimen. Her issues become the background for the scholars to have a conversation about “luxe, calme et volutpé”, and find their common ground. Byatt’s perspective on Nollett does not seem to extend to asking why “luxe, calme et volupté” lacks the power for Nollet that it does for Diss; Byatt herself seems to not look at Nollett as she is, does not represent the horror of Nollett’s life — only shows us other people reacting to the horror, and noting how far away she is from Matisse’s ideals. To extol “luxe, calme et volupté” without any meaningful confrontation with that horror, or at least a convincing explanation of why that confrontation is impossible, undermines the whole story. Nollett’s defacing of Matisse’s work is taken by the scholars to suggest that she is, at some level, aware of her inability to reach “luxe, calme et volupté”; does this not then imply that the action of the story should be taking place in and around Nollett’s head? And by contrast, if this ideal is one which is completely inaccessible to Nollett, what then is the value of the ideal?

Diss, with his almost wistful recollection of Matisse, his evocation of La Porte Noire (the painting which inspired the story), of Matisse’s ability to portray the pleasure in an old armchair, is a convincing character. So is Himmelblau. But there’s a disconnection between them and the issues they deal with. They’re uninvolved. Near the end of the story they consider the titular lobster, on display with some crabs in the restaurant where they’re eating; the animals are slowly drowning in air, and their pain of the animals is presumably meant to echo Nollett’s, who is thus identified lobster, its exoskeleton an image of the anoraks and baggy clothes Nollett wears to keep out the world and hide her anorexia. The academics observe the creatures suffering, and comment on them, but do nothing. They maintain their comfortable distance. They do not complain to the management. They do not even swear never to patronise the restaurant again. They simply watch, and do not care. 

Byatt seems to be trying to create a sense of “luxe, calme et volupté” as a means of consolation — both Himmelblau and Diss have suffered their own pains, and Diss at least views himself as past his prime, “doddering” and a failure. But being reduced in power to help others does not mean being powerless. Their inaction in the face of pain seems to me to subvert the virtue of “luxe, calme et volupté”. If this were intentional, it would be a fine stroke, complicating the easy acceptance of Matisse’s phrase. But I can’t find any indication in the text that this is what Byatt meant. Evidently we are meant to conclude that one of the benefits of “luxe, calme et volupté” is that it allows us to be untroubled by the pain around us; allows us to be untouched by others. 

To me, in this story, Byatt fails to look at the world as it is. It’s a failure which calls into question much of the collection; if this is the ideal, where is the virtue in these stories? If this is "Luxe, calme et volupté", what of Robin Dennison's sense of it as "a religious experience of the nature of things"? Byatt’s prose is as strong and allusive as ever. Her characters are as sharp. But her moral sense, here, demonstrates a peculiar and unaccustomed blind spot.

  • Other posts in the ByattBlogging series may be found here.

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